“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” – T.S. Elliot
I had the extraordinary privilege of watching the world premier of Elemental, a movie by Emmanuel Vaughn-Lee and Gayatri Roshan that offers a window into the lives of three people devoting their lives to protect against environmental and human rights abuses. Whether it is the pollution along the Ganges River in India, the expansion of the environmentally and culturally destructive tar sands operations in Canada, or the seemingly futile search for funding for early stage technologies in California, Elemental places the viewer in the shoes of those on the front lines of the dramatic environmental and social devastation taking place on the planet today. It allows the viewer to empathize with the plight of those most affected by ecological devastation and those who devote their lives to finding solutions.
What would you do when you had to pay rent and the only option for employment involved the exploitation of the natural world? How do you reconcile technological “progress” that results from damming a river with the harm it poses to traditional ways of life? How do you deal with the frustration when your potentially transformative technology fails to garner interest from investors necessary to take it to scale?
Elemental weaves the stories of Rajendra Singh, an Indian activist whose pilgrimage down the Ganges river to educate the people about the impact of their actions on the river that provides for their livelihood, Eriel Deranger, a member of the indigenous community in Northern Alberta whose population has been exposed to increasing cancer rates leading to numerous deaths as a result of the tar sands devastation, and Jay Harmon, a true out-of-the-box inventor whose mimicking of nature may yield technologies that can remove pollution from both air and water.
While the locations and circumstances of each story are different, a common theme unites them – a union with nature. Mr. Singh sees the river as the source of life. Like a mother who provides for her baby, the river provides for the community. Why then should the river be treated as a garbage dump? Mr. Singh says we certainly would never treat our mother this way. As his pilgrimage continues, he meets friends who fuel his passions and foes that oppose his efforts to purify the sacred Ganges river.
Eriel became an indigenous community activist as a result of witnessing the incredible destruction of her native homeland from the aggressive tar sands development. Members of her family had no choice but to work for these companies as their traditional way of life became impossible due to the environmental devastation. As many family members became ill and were faced with death, Eriel was in the unenviable position of having to fight to protect them.
Jay has always been intimately connected to nature. Growing up as an orphan with a learning disability, Jay never quite fit in to the cultural norms around him. Instead, he took refuge in nature where he developed a deeply connected relationship with the natural world. He soon discovered patterns in nature that he used to invent technology to solve some of the major environmental problems of our time. “Nature is sanity,” he says, and “when we remove ourselves from nature, we lose our sanity.”
Elemental puts the viewer in the shoes of each of these characters so that they can get a sense for the difficulty that comes with challenging the established interests of society. Those that challenge the status quo risk being ostracized by their peers and even family members. The movie explores the character’s interactions with faith as a driving force behind their work as they struggle with a life of activism and social change.
The movie strikes at the core of our humanity. It asks the tough questions our society faces in an authentic way by travailing both the successes and setbacks along the journey of three pioneers in the fight to save nature. The challenges are great but the answers, too, are right there in front of us. We simply must reconnect to nature and let our Mother guide us.
“In the world we have created, there are many ways to fail. In nature, you can’t fail.”